The Lethal Comforts

I’m reading the pleasingly-titled The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945) by Henry Miller. It’s a scathing critique of American (read industrial) life by way of a grumpy travelogue.

Miller left a bohemian life in Paris to see his own country again in the hopes of coming to terms with it and feeling less like a cultural refugee, but it didn’t work.

He didn’t hate America but he didn’t love it either and one of the key problems was Capitalism; the way the grindstone ethic infected everything while everyone claimed to be “free,” the way a gulf in liberties widened between rich and poor while both tribes cooperated to tear the natural environment to pieces.

The book contains many wise observations relevant to Escapology and the world’s current problems even though it was written almost 80 years ago.

This moment, however, is one of my favourites because, as well as seeing the twin-locking nature of work and consumerism I like to discuss, he ties it directly to the car.

The saddest sight of all is the automobiles parked outside the mills and factories. The automobile stands out in my mind as the very symbol of falsity and illusion. There they are, thousands upon thousands of them, in such profusion that it would seem as if no man were too poor to own one. In Europe, Asia, Africa the toiling masses of humanity look with watering eyes toward this Paradise where the workers ride to work in his own car. What a magnificent world of opportunity it must be, they think to themselves. (At least we like to think that they think that way!)

They never ask what one must do to have this great boon. They don’t realize that when the American worker steps out of his shinning tin chariot he delivers himself body and soul to the most stultifying labor a man can perform. They have no idea that it is possible, even when one works under the best conditions possible, to forfeit all rights as a human being. They don’t know that the best possible conditions (in American lingo) mean the biggest profits to the boss, the utmost servitude for the worker, the greatest confusion and disillusionment for the public in general.

They see a beautiful, shinning car which purrs like a cat; they see endless concrete roads so smooth and flawless that the driver has difficulty keeping awake; they see cinemas that look like palaces; they see department stores with manikins dressed like princesses. They see the glitter and paint, the baubles, the gadgets, the luxuries they don’t see the bitterness in the heart, the skepticism, the cynicism, the emptiness, the sterility, the despair, the hopelessness which is eating up the American worker. They don’t want to see this—they are full of misery themselves. They want a way out: they want the lethal comforts, conveniences, luxuries. And they follow in our footsteps—blindly, heedlessly, recklessly.

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